My people come from what is often referred to by banks as LDC’s (least developed countries), little brown tropical countries, drenched with religious fanatics, stalks of sugar like magic wands picked for five cents an hour sold for 3.00 a box. My people come from generational recycled 40 oz. bottles of beer and shit and cigarettes smoked backwards (the lit end in your mouth), and cassava, and ube, pickled chicken fetus’, and piss, and mah jong, gambling (lots of gambling) and child sex workers, boys and girls. Untold numbers of pretty pretty boys.  My people are light bulb eaters, bed-of-nail-walkers, fire-eaters, every day is a circus in their jungles, alive with naked intent.  By the time we got here we would be happy at any swap meet, all of us hollowed out like empty mango shells. My people rested naked sandwiches on the arms of chairs, and always had an open saucer with half melted butter, a block of Velveeta cheese in the freezer, an open rice cooker.  Every kitchen with brown and white diamond checkered floors lined with ants, and every top drawer with little boxes of broken chalk to try to fight the ants and roaches, my people have big rubber fly swatters, and eat with their teeth floating in glasses of water at the dinner table.  My people live their lives tending to things. And if you told them the city was cruel with budget cuts they would scoff at you and your American budget cuts.  They lived half their lives in city dumps.  Here the trash bins behind restaurants are caged and locked to keep homeless out.  “Why do they lock it up?” we ask.  “So the homeless don’t eat the trash.”  “Oh.”

But it still makes no sense.  Is food-trash only for throwing away? My people drink coffee for dinner.  Kills the appetite.  Little empty bellies always round.

So that’s why the first time I saw someone stand at a podium, fist in air, microphone against mouth chanting “Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede!” And then there were claps that were slow to start with spaces in between like the clap that a kid makes when he’s teasing another kid.  The clap of humiliation but it gained speed faster faster faster until the whole crowd was lifted up by this clap and my heart was catching up with the clap. I felt it clanging against my chest.  I felt my nipples hard against my shirt. I felt my hands tight.  I wasn’t a person I was part of this big giant super fast heartbeat.  And everything in the vehicle formerly known as my body screamed “SIGN ME UP! SIGN ME UP MOTHERFUCKERS!”  And so it began.

The day I was hired as a union organizer I was handed a small stapled booklet that read ‘Axioms for Organizers’.  These axioms were slung in homes across the Coachella Valley as Fred Ross Jr. worked with Cesar Chavez on the farmworkers campaign and were eventually put into a little DIY booklet and handed to organizers on their first day.  My favorite is every organizer is a social arsonist, you have to set the minds and hearts of your members on fire.  In that same way I think of writers as social arsonists.

I’ve learned there are two reasons people read: 1) to escape and 2) to connect.  I picture thousands of people reaching for books with their best intentions reaching for books and laying on benches, in beds, on couches, shoved against walls, curled on concrete all reading with one hope in mind; to connect to the antagonist and further their understanding of the human spirit.  Even though it’s fun to use terms like social arsonist I think that I am now occupying one of the less sexy spaces. The spaces between. It’s what happens after you occupy Wall Street after the chanting and the microphone. It’s what happens while your quietly working on your first novel. It’s like going home after partying all week and thinking, Who turned out the lights?

My job today is to get new and occasional voters to commit to voting regularly in their local elections.  No that’s not as fun as wearing a sign or pitching a tent or screaming into a bullhorn or getting arrested or doing anything facebook-status-change-worthy but it’s what I believe is necessary for real systemic change.  I’ve read recently “Behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.”

I would say the same is true for novels.  That behind every great novel is a writer doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.  To me the spaces between while writing the novel, whether it be the spaces between feedback or the spaces between a submission response, or the spaces between sitting before the page, can be desperate like being a teenager in foster care wishing keep me keep me keep me. It’s the novel afraid it will slip between your fingers, off of your hard drive, beside the others in the wastebasket on your desktop, tucked somewhere between law school and your afterschool tutoring volunteer gig. First the tugging at your brain and heart, then the shame then the daunting weight of guilt that turns the whole thing into an afterthought.  That is the dull screeching around your heart when you are living in the spaces between.  Come with me and brave them.

 

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MELISSA CHADBURN is a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, a lesbian, of color, smart, edgy and fun. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Guernica, PANK Magazine, WordRiot, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus, SLAKE, and elsewhere. Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at) gmail.com or follow her on Twitter. She loves your whole outfit right now.

30 responses to “Occupy the Spaces Between”

  1. Jane Donuts says:

    “Behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.”

    Love that. And I share your angst about the spaces between. Glad to know I’m not alone.

  2. jaimie sarra says:

    I love this article and look forward to more!

  3. Moore says:

    Brilliant, as always…. and so true. Yesterday, at a Hollywood meeting with a way bigger shot than me about a script, I thought to myself “how many thousands of hours have gone into making this pitch look like it came together effortlessly?” And then I thought, “I can’t wait for the interminable slog on the next one.” 😀

  4. No Jane Donuts you are not alone and I think we are both in LA yes?
    Moore… yea for the interminable slog!

  5. Yuvi says:

    “behind every great novel is a writer doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time”

    YES!!!

    Beautifully done, Melissa.

  6. Jess P says:

    AMAZING way to start my morning – waking up in the spaces between and reading that I’m in really good company.

    Melissa, you = awesome! Can’t wait to read more.

  7. Steph says:

    All of the spaces between…all of the mundane little acts that go into reaching. The finished dishes, the made bed, the brushed teeth, quitting smokin, eatin greens, workin a phone bank, knockin on doors, telling the truth. Waking up and making the train on time. Hoping that it will all amount to something. I think I can I think I can…A novel, a working government, a clean house, a healthy body, a working heart…small acts toward the possible. Being little Piglet and not Poo but still worthy of love.
    You nailed a feeling in this one. Thank you.

  8. Seth Fischer says:

    This is a beautiful essay. “My people are light bulb eaters, bed-of-nail-walkers, fire-eaters, every day is a circus in their jungles, alive with naked intent.” Floored.

  9. Brian McFarland says:

    So much depends, on pushing the red wheel barrow up and down the hill, even in the soggy rain-drenched clothes, and deciding which chicken to slaughter with a sharp axe to protein-fuel the next day’s quiet slog. Bravo Melissa! Cannot wait to read more dispatches from the between spaces. (with apologies to WCW)

  10. gordon lee johnson says:

    All praises to your opening paragraph, the list of things like in The Things They Carried that describe origins not with soft-pedalling vague adjectives but with the whack of a flyswatter. It reeled me into your piece, hooked me like bass on a barbed popper. Great stuff, Melissa.

  11. Nat Missildine says:

    I love when I come across a piece like this that feels like it has a living presence on the screen. This is the kind of rally cry I can get behind. Excellent. Looking forward to more of your writing here.

  12. Polly Dugan says:

    Great piece Melissa, stunning first paragraph. Good fuel to keep me writing too.

  13. Polly Dugan says:

    Great Melissa, stunning first paragraph. Good fuel to keep me writing too.

  14. Gloria says:

    Melissa,

    This inspired me, gave me chills, and made me cry. Your writing is gorgeous; your pacing, pristine. Welcome aboard. I can’t wait to read more of you.

    Cheers,
    Gloria

  15. Richard Eoin Nash says:

    Sign me up, motherfuckers.

  16. Linda Santiman says:

    The article is so descriptive that it draws me in and moves me.

  17. Great to see you here, Melissa. Fantastic, fantastic essay.

  18. Tina says:

    Stunning, all of it. And just what I needed to hear at the moment. You have such a gift.
    “To me the spaces between while writing the novel, whether it be the spaces between feedback or the spaces between a submission response, or the spaces between sitting before the page, can be desperate like being a teenager in foster care wishing keep me keep me keep me.” I’ll come with you and brave them. Just keep holding my hand!

  19. Ryan Day says:

    I loved this.

  20. Uche Ogbuji says:

    When I read: “My people come from generational recycled 40 oz. bottles of beer and shit and cigarettes smoked backwards (the lit end in your mouth), and cassava, and ube, pickled chicken fetus’” I bethought myself: “Ah, she’s Igbo, then, but what’s this chicken fetus business?” Cassava is of course and unfortunately ubiquitous in Igbo land since the damned Portuguese brought it from Brazil. Nigeria is now the world’s leading producer of the crop. Ube (pronounced oo-beh with rising tone on latter syllable) is what we call a bread fruit and palm oil stew. Out of curiosity I looked up “ube” in Web-dictionary space, and found Wordnik’s reference to:

    “These yams are the most delightful color, and Gay has used them to make Haleyang Ube, or ube ice cream, a favorite Filipino dessert.”

    Anyway, welcome to TNB and all. As ever I find myself attracted to the cultural spaces between text.

  21. Melissa Chadburn says:

    @Linda I love me some Linda Pinda, @J Ryan Stradal nice to see you here, @tina thanks for braving all of this writing stuff with me, @Ryan Day thanks so much. nice to meet you, @Uche Ogbuij yea it’s actually duck fetus it’s a filipino delicacy called bulot (pronounced bull oht) a lot of American television shows use it on a dare like on ‘Survivor’ and stuff. Ube is a super fun purple yam that makes starchy desserts fun colors. Let’s go eat.

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